For this week’s Looking At Character article, let’s do the exact opposite of our previous topic, which, if you recall, was the Load, a helpless but essential character. That opposite is the Ace: the flawless, best of the best character that everyone looks up to and pales in comparison. Most often the Ace is used as a mentor figure or something with which to compare other character’s relative ineffectiveness or lack of moral character to. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Aces often don’t make it through the stories they are featured in, often killed, eliminated, or otherwise marginalized or humbled before the major climax. With those bare-bone basics laid out, what is the story and characterization value of the Ace?
As mentioned above, often the Ace is position as a mentor figure for the protagonists, someone so amazingly good at what they do that they offer a logical path to let the other characters reach those same lofty heights. Similarly, they may not be so much a direct mentor but a role model, someone other characters in the piece look up to and model themselves on. Either way, this version of the Ace is used mostly as a characterization device as opposed to a plot motivator: his/her direct instruction or the ideal he/she represents shapes the development of the protagonists and how those characters progress down that road can reveal truths about their character.
Juxtapose the ‘Ace-as-mentor/role model’ concept against this idea: using the Ace as a foil for the protagonists. The Ace often is shown to be almost unrealistically good at what he does or to be a sterling tower of morality, whether this is actually true or simply a public image. Such an impossible standard may just not be something the protagonists can achieve and thus they (or other characters) may compare themselves to the Ace and find themselves wanting. Perhaps, in cases where the Ace’s legend doesn’t match the truth, this comparison and the eventual discovery of the truth can lead to some very humanizing moments for both the protagonists and the formerly untarnished Ace as one realizes they, in fact, are good enough and the other gets brought back down to humanity.
Used as a plot device, the Ace’s main purpose to actuate a plot point is, most often, to die or to otherwise be taken out of the action. Most often, this is, story-wise, done to allow the protagonists to step forward and take the Ace’s place. Also, the Ace can be used to provide breathing room in a story, if there is some threat or conflict that the Ace’s presence keeps at bay but begs to be fleshed out before the climax. The protagonists and the reader can be exposed to this conflict in a controlled manner, enough to be well-informed but always safe with the Ace’s presence. At the appropriate dramatic time, the Ace is removed from the equation in some fashion and the full tension of the conflict can be realized, leading to an appropriate climax for the story.
One may wonder why the Ace, being depicted as nearly-flawless, isn’t often used as the main character. In many ways, the Ace is what many protagonists end up as at the conclusion of their story arcs, especially in heroic fantasy and superhero tales, so why not use the Ace is a more direct fashion? The reason is made clear by the mention of story arcs. The Ace has no arc or, to be honest, had her/his arc already. There is no heroic journey; the Ace is already at the pinnacle. With no arc to explore and few flaws to provide drama, the Ace has no personal story that is worth telling on her/his own merits. In that way, the Ace often represents the hero’s goal, that ultimate pinnacle to rise to, but are almost never the actual hero of the story.
Is there some character archetype or some particular brand of characterization you want me to ramble about? Anything to add to the musings above? Drop a line in the comments!